How Obama tapped into a powerful—and only recently studied—human emotion called "elevation."

The state of the universe.
Dec. 3 2008 7:03 AM

Obama in Your Heart

How the president-elect tapped into a powerful—and only recently studied—human emotion called "elevation."

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The researchers say elevation is part of a family of self-transcending emotions. Some others are awe, that sense of the vastness of the universe and smallness of self that is often invoked by nature; another is admiration, that goose-bump-making thrill that comes from seeing exceptional skill in action. Keltner says we most powerfully experience these in groups—no wonder people spontaneously ran into the street on election night, hugging strangers. "We had to evolve these emotions to devote ourselves into social collectives," he says.

When you start thinking about mass movements, all those upturned, glowing faces of true believers—be they the followers of Jim Jones or Adolf Hitler—you don't always get a warm feeling about mankind. Instead, knowing where some of these "social collectives" end up, the sensation is a cold chill. Haidt acknowledges that in "calling the group to greatness," elevation can be used for murderous ends. He says: "Anything that takes us out of ourselves and makes us feel we are listening to something larger is part of morality. It's about pressing the buttons that turn off 'I' and turn on 'we.' " 

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Even at its most benign, elevation can seem ridiculous to outsiders. Think of how Obama's opponents love to mock his effect  on people. During the campaign, if your chest was contracting while all about you chests were dilating, you may be a Republican. If you were unmoved by Obama, watching your fellow citizen get all tingly, even fall into a faint (too much vagus stimulation, and you're going down), was maddening. "Other people's reverence seems unctuous and sanctimonious," says Keltner.

Obama himself seemed aware of the dangers that too much elevation might pop his candidacy like a helium balloon hitting a power line. Conservative columnist  Charles Krauthammer described Obama's canny strategy to make his rhetoric more pedestrian for the final months of the campaign.

While there is very little lab work on the elevating emotions, there is quite a bit on its counterpart, disgust. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin has been a leading theorist in the uses of disgust. He says it started as a survival strategy: Early humans needed to figure out when food was spoiled by contact with bacteria or parasites. From there disgust expanded to the social realm—people became repelled by the idea of contact with the defiled or by behaviors that seemed to belong to lower people. "Disgust is probably the most powerful emotion that separates your group from other groups," says Keltner.

Haidt says disgust is the bottom floor of a vertical continuum of emotion; hit the up button, and you arrive at elevation. This could be why so many Obama supporters complained of being sickened and nauseated by the Republican campaign. Seeing a McCain ad or Palin video clip actually felt like being plunged from their Obama-lofted heights.

Disgust carries with it the notion of contamination, which helps to explain the Republicans' obsession with Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, and Jeremiah Wright and their frustration that more voters didn't have a visceral reaction that Obama had unforgivably sullied himself by association with these men. But this time, elevation won. And expect that on Inauguration Day, even if the weather's frigid, millions will be warmed by that liquid feeling in their chests.